Fresh oil is laid on a road in Norman. Transportation experts say counties need more money to fund road projects due to inflation and rising construction materials costs. (Photo by Kyle Phillips/For Oklahoma Voice)
OKLAHOMA CITY — Advocates for county roads and bridges on Tuesday urged state lawmakers to address the rising cost of road repairs and equipment as inflation erodes funding.
County commissioners and road experts say ongoing funding limitations that the Legislature imposed in 2015 are impacting the maintenance 83,000 county roads and 14,000 bridges. Funding must be increased to maintain them, in addition to other policy changes.
The cuts came in response to a revenue shortfall, Randy Robinson, executive director of Oklahoma Cooperative Circuit Engineering Districts Board. The board helps counties with road and bridge maintenance projects.
“It’s not like we’re doing more with less,” he said “We’re doing less with less.”
Counties rely heavily on motor fuel tax revenue to pay for road and bridge improvements.
“It’s not like you have this overage of funds that can be used for roads,” he said. “It’s not there.”
Counties also receive funding from a state account designated to help with heavy machinery purchases. That fund needs additional appropriations as well.
Robinson said state allocations for road maintenance are far below the cost of materials to improve them, and the cost keeps going up.
“It’s just gone up, pre-COVID, during COVID and after COVID, it’s all going up regardless,” Robinson said.
He is also urging state lawmakers to lift the two-cent cap on voter-approved county sales tax increases to boost funding for counties to fix roads and bridges. Voters have approved county sales taxes to help fund roads, but state law limits how much counties can increase taxes.
Rep. Ronny Johns, R- Ada, chair of a House transportation committee, listened to recommendations from transportation officials during a Tuesday interim study session. The studies can help lawmakers draft legislation.
Johns said he hopes transportations officials’ concerns can be addressed with legislation, but said that lawmakers must proceed “with caution” as state revenue fluctuates.
Cleveland County Commissioner Rod Cleveland said all counties are feeling the pinch.
“Our funding for roads from 2019 to 2023, the last four years has pretty much been flat,” he said.
Cleveland said counties are struggling to keep up with supply chain shortages, especially for heavy equipment, along with the rising cost of labor in a competitive job market.
Cleveland said employees with commercial driver’s licenses are recruited by other industries, especially oil and gas, for as much as $63,000 a year, far more than the average $32,000 pay for county road workers.
Staff shortages are so prevalent that commissioners are stepping up to grade roads and do dirt work themselves, he said.
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